BY QUINN GREENWOOD
With a few days left until the first game of the new season, it is finally an appropriate time to comment on what has been a relatively stand-still free agency period in the NL West. For the most part, few big name players coming to the West; Ian Desmond, Mark Melancon, Taijuan Walker, and Logan Forsythe are the top tier of recognizable (and useful) new names. There are, however, plenty of intriguing depth pieces added to the division. The West used the offseason to better the bench, broaden the bullpen, and bulk up on appealing minor league deals. These newcomers will not only provide good storylines come Spring Training, they also could impact division races and potential playoff series.
Recently, the results from the NL West itself have been fairly stable. The Dodgers have won the division four years running and the Giants have won the World Series three times since the decade began. The last year the NL West sent a representative to the playoffs not named ‘Dodgers’ or ‘Giants’ was the 2011 Diamondbacks and before that, the 2009 Rockies. Has there been enough improvement from the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Padres to alter this six year stretch of dominance by the Dodgers and the Giants?
Los Angeles Dodgers (91-71 in 2016)
While the Dodgers have been dominating the division of late, they have not been to the World Series since 1988– nearly a 30 year stretch. The Dodgers have also been paying heavily to obtain and retain talent. In 2014, the Dodgers unseated the Yankees’ 15-year reign as Payroll King and have not looked back; 2017 will be the Dodgers’ fourth consecutive year as the highest paid team in the Majors. This offseason, the Dodgers spent again, albeit not as heavily as they’ve spent in years past. They opted to resign the majority of their pending Free Agents, while also bulking up their already deep bench. Meanwhile, the Dodgers’ future remains bright, as they also have a top-10 farm system, even after acquiring Forsythe for their number three prospect Jose De Leon.
Logan Forsythe 2B, Sergio Romo RP, Franklin Gutierrez OF
Joe Blanton RP, JP Howell RP, Howie Kendrick UTL, Brett Anderson RP, Carlos Ruiz C
The immediate take-away from this offseasons additions/departures list is that the bullpen is going to be different. The Dodgers are guaranteeing $84.125MM towards relief pitchers by resigning Kenley Jansen and adding on Sergio Romo. Granted, the vast majority of that money is going to the anchor, Kenley Jansen, who can opt-out of a five-year $80MM contract in 2020. The other big contract of the offseason went to resigning Justin Turner to a fairly team friendly 4-year $64MM deal.
In other news, the Dodgers finally settled on acquiring second baseman Logan Forsythe from the Rays after a prolonged bidding battle for (still-untraded) Brian Dozier, the power-hitting second baseman for the Twins. Dozier, who hit (.268/.340/.546) with 42 HR in 2016, certainly would have been a big acquisition for an already solid batting order. In 2016, Forsythe hit (.264/.333/.444) with 20 HR and should be a more than serviceable right-handed batter on a lefty-heavy lineup.
Potential Internal Improvement:
Clayton Kershaw SP, Corey Seager SS, Yasiel Puig OF, Rich Hill SP,
Potential Internal Decline:
Adrian Gonzalez 1B, Joc Pederson OF, Sergio Romo RP
First and foremost, if Kershaw and Hill can get more starts than they got last year, (Kershaw had 21, Hill had 6 and Urias had 15) the Dodgers will have a better record. Kershaw is undoubtedly among not only the elites of today, but also the elites of all time. Hill has performed remarkably whenever he’s been healthy since his return to the starting rotation in 2015. That being said, Hill is going to be 37 later this year and hasn’t pitched over 120 innings in a decade, so his starts will likely be limited. Urias will probably have an innings cap, as he is a young pitcher and limiting innings to protect against potential arm injuries has become conventional for young starters in today’s game. He should, however, spend the majority of the season in the Majors. As for Sergio Romo, the last pitcher listed above, I have seen too many sliders hit for home runs over the left field wall in Dodger Stadium to be comfortable with him pitching there regularly.
As for the hitters, I do not envision Corey Seager suffering from the fabled sophomore slump. His swing is too pure and his instincts are solid. I envision Seager vying for the MVP award again this year. Joc Pederson, on the other hand, will eternally be suspended in the sophomore slump. It all depends on how often he strikes out. If he continues to strike out at the rates he has been, he will not be regarded as a good team player. Last year, Pederson hit .030 higher than 2015, but only increased his OBP by .006. That’s because, while he did slightly lower his strikeout rate from 2015, he also lowered his walk rate. I can’t see Pederson being more than a more-hyped, outfield-edition of Chris Carter, who is the reigning NL HR king and recently signed a one-year $3MM contract with the Yankees. As for the other outfielder– Yasiel Puig is the wild card of the team. Personally, I buy into the matured post-minors Puig that the Dodgers are hoping comes out of Spring Training. This is a big year for Puig. This year will decide if his poor play the past two seasons has been because of attitude problems or if he was overrated from the beginning. Adrian Gonzalez, on the other hand is a very solid player and has been for years. I think he will continue to be very solid, but I do think his power numbers will continue to be unimpressive. At age 35 he will still be able to get the bat head on the ball, but will not be able to hit it with the authority he once had.
C) Yasmani Grandal (S)
1B) Adrian Gonzalez (L)
2B) Logan Forsythe (R)
SS) Corey Seager (L)
3B) Justin Turner (R)
LF) Andrew Toles (L)
CF) Joc Pederson (L)
RF) Yasiel Puig (R)
LHP Clayton Kershaw
RHP Kenta Maeda
LHP Rich Hill
LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu
LHP Brandon McCarthy
CL Kenley Jansen (R)
RHSU Pedro Baez/Sergio Romo
LHSU Adam Liberatore/Grant Dayton
MR Josh Fields (R)
LR ??? (L/L)
UTL Chris Taylor (R)
UTL Enrique Hernandez (R)
C Austin Barnes (R)
OF Franklin Gutierrez (R)
2B Chase Utley (L)
SP Scott Kazmir (L), RP Pedro Baez (R), OF Andre Ethier
Look again for the Dodgers to have a great year. Their starting nine projects to be competitive daily as they have tremendous depth that extends beyond the bench. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Dodgers trade from their abundance of OF (Puig, Pederson, Toles, Van Slyke, Ethier) and SP (Kazmir, McCarthy, Wood) for a quality depth piece that could play SS/3B. Depth-wise, shortstop and third base are the only weak points in the entire organization. Any extended injury to Seager or Turner would be a big threat to the Dodgers chances at becoming the division champs for the fifth year in a row.
San Francisco Giants (87-75 in 2016)
This year confirms the longest title drought in San Francisco since before winning the World Series in 2010. This year also marks the second year in a row in which the Giants did not re-sign one of their pending free agents. Last offseason, the Giants struck big in free agency, signing Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span, while also extending the contracts of both of the Brandons (Crawford and Belt) through 2021. This offseason was far less exciting; the Giants got what they desperately needed in shutdown closer Mark Melancon. The only other major-league deal completed by the Giants this offseason was signing backup catcher Nick Hundley to a one-year contract. Granted, the Giants did pull off an assortment of intriguing minor-league deals that made for an interesting Spring Training. That being said, it is valid to say that the Giants did not need many offseason additions. Last season, the Giants had the best record in baseball when the All-Star Game began (before posting MLB’s second-worst record in the second half of the year). This year, I expect a more stable W-L record, in large parts due to the continuation of a solid core roster, the acquisition of Mark Melancon, the expectation of a full year from Matt Moore, and a presumed short leash for Matt Cain.
Mark Melancon CL, Nick Hundley C, Jimmy Rollins (SS), Mike Morse (OF/1B), Jae-Gyun Hwang (3B), Aaron Hill (UTL), Justin Ruggiano (OF)
Sergio Romo RP, Sergio Casilla RP, Javier López RP, Angel Pagán OF*, Gregor Blanco OF, Jake Peavy SP*, Ehire Adrianza UTL
() = Minor League Deal
* = Currently Unsigned
First item of note, there are three relief pitchers leaving and only one coming in, which immediately signifies that there will be old faces in new places within the bullpen. I expect Derek Law, Hunter Strickland and Josh Osich will receive the majority late game stress innings. Of the trio, Hunter Strickland is the most overrated, as he has yet to obtain true command over his fastball and has been known to leave hanging heaters in high-stress situations. Osich, on the other hand, is more of a wild card. He has great stuff, but he has yet to stick in the majors, be it from injury or control issues. The only new face to be joining the bullpen is Mark Melancon, a shutdown closer and a huge get for the Giants who had the most blown saves in the majors last year with 30.
The Giants have lost Gregor Blanco and are very likely to lose longtime starter Angel Pagan, so there will be a new left fielder and fourth outfielder. Jarrett Parker, Mac Williamson, and Gorkys Hernandez will likely see the bulk of the time filling out those roles, but there is room for only two of them on the 25-man roster. Of the trio, Jarrett Parker is out of minor league options, so he will likely make the team as the starting left fielder. Gorkys Hernandez will probably beat out Mac Williamson for the fourth outfielder role, as Gorkys is better defensively and can play all three outfield positions. Chris Marrero, a former top prospect for the Washington Nationals, is a dark horse candidate to land an 1B/OF role as he has played well so far in spring training, he is tied for the second most spring training HRs at 7).
Throughout the offseason the Giants front office pursued minor league deals for former starters that have begun to age. The Giants signed all of Jimmy Rollins, Michael Morse, Aaron Hill, and Justin Ruggiano to compete for bench spots in spring training and to act as depth pieces in case of injury. Of those four, Michael Morse was the most likely to make the team, as he can fill the role of bench-power as well as play first base. However, Morse injured his hamstring and will not be healthy for Opening Day. Morse did, however, opt to report to the minor leagues rather than retire, so it is very likely that we have not seen the last of Morse in the orange and black. Of the remaining three (Rollins, Hill and Ruggiano), only the fate of Rollins is currently known; he was not given his retention bonus and will not make the Giants’ opening day roster.
Lastly, the Giants invested in some talent from the Korean Baseball League. Last year, Jae-Gyun Hwang batted .330 with 26 HRs and 24 SB while playing third base for the Lotte Giants. In all likelihood, Hwang will not make the big leagues out of spring training even though he has hit an impressive .356/.375 with 5 HRs in 45 at bats. The pair of Eduardo Nunez and Conor Gillaspie should receive the majority of innings at third. However, should either get injured Hwang will make an intriguing depth option and could find himself more playing time if he shows he can adapt to the skill level of Major League baseball.
Potential Internal Improvement:
Joe Panik 2B, Matt Moore SP, Hunter Pence OF, Brandon Belt 1B, Buster Posey C, Bullpen
Potential Internal Decline:
Hunter Strickland RP, Denard Span OF
Firstly, I selected Hunter Pence and Joe Panik for candidates for marked improvement based on the hopes of healthier seasons. Last season, Panik suffered from a concussion, which may have contributed to .239 batting average (as opposed to his first two seasons, in which he hit .305 and .312 respectively). Hunter Pence has been a more consistent health concern for the Giants in the last two seasons. Over that two year period, Pence has missed 166 games, which is slightly more than a full season. Pence has played well when healthy, but at age 34 the Giants have to be wondering how many more games Pence will play before his contract expires after the 2018 season. If he can play +120 games per season he will be a major asset to the squad.
In terms of potential improvement for pitchers, I think Matt Moore will benefit not only from pitching an entire season at AT&T park, but also from pitching to Buster Posey, the best pitch-framer in Majors last year and one of the few catchers to have caught three no-hitters in his career (Jason Varitek and Carlos Ruiz share the MLB record with 4 no-hitters caught apiece).
In regards to the bullpen, it is almost guaranteed that the Giants will be consistently better this year. The Giants blew 30 saves last year, the most in the Majors– and still managed to make the playoffs. Mark Melancon has been incredibly consistent; he hasn’t had an ERA over 2.23 since 2012. His presence alone will help the Giants close out wins. In other news, the Giants main lefty, Will Smith, is out for the season, having got Tommy John surgery a couple weeks ago. Smith was the only veteran lefty relief pitcher that has had substantial late game experience. Depending on how well Josh Osich and Steven Okert can fill the late game lefty roll, Smith’s injury could end up being a massive blow to a young bullpen. Aside from Mark Melancon, look for Derek Law, Hunter Strickland, Josh Osich, and perhaps George Kontos to receive the majority of stressful relief innings.
I selected Denard Span for potential decline because he is on the verge of being too old to play center field. According to fangraphs, Span has been trending down defensively since 2013, going from a 10.2 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) to a -8.1 last season. Offensively, last season Span hit the most HRs in his career with 11, but he also posted his worst OBP (.331) since 2013 (.327).
I recall too many high stress moments that Hunter Strickland mucked up to be comfortable with him being relied on as a pivotal piece in a young bullpen. Yes, he does possess an electric fastball, but it tends to run too straight for his level of control (which is subpar). I have heard rumblings that Strickland has been working on a cutter, which would be a great solution to the lack of movement on his heat, he just has to be able to locate it.
C) Buster Posey (R)
1B) Brandon Belt (L)
2B) Joe Panik (L)
SS) Brandon Crawford (L)
3B) Eduardo Nunez (R)
LF) Jarrett Parker (L)
CF) Denard Span (L)
RF) Hunter Pence (R)
LHP Madison Bumgarner (L)
RHP Johnny Cueto (R)
LHP Matt Moore (L)
RHP Jeff Samardzija (R)
RHP Matt Cain (R)
CL Mark Melancon
RHSU Derek Law/Hunter Strickland
LHSU Steven Okert/Josh Osich
RHP Cory Gearrin
RHP George Kontos
C) Nick Hundley
OF) Gorkys Hernandez
3B) Conor Gillaspie
UTL) Kelby Tomlinson
1B/OF) Chris Marrero
DL: RP Will Smith (L)
I expect the Giants to win more games this season than last season. There are two positions that are concerning depth-wise. The first is the outfield. If either Denard Span or Hunter Pence miss a significant amount of time, look for the Giants to acquire another outfielder to plug the hole. The second position, late game relief pitching, is more of a question of experience than a matter of depth. Should Melancon go down to injury, the Giants would have to rely on Derek Law or Hunter Strickland, both of whom are young and have yet to try their hand at getting the final out of tight games.